Diane Samuels' fascinating 1993 play, Kindertransport, tells three stories simultaneously, one of them extraordinarily well.
The most vivid story the play tells is about the "Kindertransport" itself -- the evacuation of 10,000 Jewish children under 17 from Germany to England between 1938 (barely a month after Kristallnacht) and the declaration of war in 1939. Samuels tells this story through the case of 9-year-old Eva Schlesinger (Heather Stuart) -- a fictional composite of several surviving "kinder" whom Samuels interviewed -- separated from her parents in Hamburg and taken in by Lil Miller (Moira Rankin) in Manchester.
Eva's story is strongly told and stunningly staged, with its inherent drama of separation, train evacuations and channel crossings, the threat of further evacuation (from the bombarded British cities to the safer countryside), and the more profound drama of cultural and linguistic dislocation painfully combined with the loss of one family and the formation of another, with its attendant sense of betrayal and guilt.
Much of the impact of the story is no doubt due to the remarkable performance by Stuart, who shifts virtuosically between several languages, accents and linguistic modes -- neutral/American diction for conversations with her mother (Marcia Saunders) in her native language; fluent panic-stricken German when she first arrives in Britain; German-inflected broken English as she acquires her new speech, family, country and identity; and, as a teenager immediately after the war, the more-English-than-the-English accents of assimilation.
The second story is the relationship between the adult Eva, now Evelyn (Sally Mercer), and her adult daughter Faith (Heather Donohue, who bears an astonishingly credible mother-daughter resemblance to Mercer). At the start of the play, Faith's relationship with Evelyn (a daughter unable to crack the shell of her mother's private fears) is cross-cut with the parallel story of young Eva's separation from her "Mutti" in Hamburg.
Faith, rummaging through the family attic (in David P. Gordon's beautiful single setting), discovers the strongbox filled with letters and documents of Evelyn's secret Jewish origins, and her discoveries become the means for Samuels to dramatize Eva's story. Eva writes letters to her mother as Faith reads aloud letters from Mutti. Eva reads aloud from her favorite children's book, The Ratcatcher, while, on the other side of the stage, Faith struggles with the German of the book as she pulls it from her mother's strongbox.
The third story, which dominates the second half of the play, is much less theatrically satisfying and at the same time much more dramatically profound. Here, the focus shifts to Evelyn, torn, as she was in youth, between her past identity and the new one she has forged for herself, between remembering and forgetting.
These scenes are less theatrically satisfying in part because the emotional confrontations -- between various sets of mothers and daughters -- are less well-written than the story of evacuation and dislocation, in part because director Ken Marini has fewer theatrical resources to draw upon in staging them, and in part because Sally Mercer is much better at playing the icy containment and denial of her role than she is playing its emotional revelations, and so she is unable to undercut the more maudlin writing with a credible emotional core.
This is a shame, for in these passages Samuels finally reveals what her play is really about: the question of how the Holocaust can and should be remembered, and of how -- or perhaps whether -- the Holocaust can be staged.
The play, an act of remembrance, stages what Evelyn would prefer to forget. In Evelyn's refusal to embrace her past or to let her daughter have access to it, and in the parallel scenes of the teenage Eva confronting the personal legacy of the Holocaust, Kindertransport shows us that there are two types of survival, that it is possible to lose your self in the act of preserving yourself.
Samuels juxtaposes The Ratcatcher with the other book that Eva carries with her out of Germany, a Passover Hagaddah (does no one at Cheltenham know how to pronounce that word?). The Hagaddah, like the play, asks for remembrance, by telling a story that asks the reader to identify with the survivor of the narrative, to proclaim boldly, "This is what happened to me when I came out of Egypt.''"
Evelyn rejects this charge, and, in the most stunning image of the play, sits to one side of the attic with her adoptive mother, silently ripping into tiny pieces the letters and photographs of her Jewish family, her identity and her past.
This horrifying act of negation, of willful forgetting, is more theatrically effective than any of the scenes of intergenerational recrimination and hand-wringing in the second half of the play. And it is this act of forgetting that Samuels' beautiful play, as an act of remembrance, boldly and effectively negates.
-- Cary M. Mazer